At the playground, we say, I’m sorry. We say, Please say excuse me, and then eventually we say, Excuse us. We say, Good job! We say, You’re doing it! We say, Watch out! Watch out! We say, Are you okay? You’re okay.
We say, No water today. We say, Remember honey? The city shut it off—no more water in the pump. We say, A pump with no water, isn’t that silly? We say, They didn’t like people washing their clothes, isn’t that silly? We grow quiet, try to discern the different quiets—sadness, guilt, discomfort, maybe annoyance. We remember when the pump was on: the sweet, zigzag tracks of muddy footprints, the slips and small mouths filled with blood.
We watch the big girl pour sand in the little girl’s hair and we feel mad, but we say, Where’s your mom, sweetie? Sometimes, they fall off the jungle gym like rat-poisoned sparrows, and there’s the beat of silence awaiting a cry or a laugh.
At the playground, we take pictures of blur, feel bad for missing the moment as it happened. Someone screams, You’re not my friend, and we say, Everyone is a friend here, this is everyone’s community. Everything belongs to everybody. Everybody deserves a chance. On a good day, we say, Is there anything more perfect than this?
On a cold night, when the hippie mom with the pet rats won’t tell her kid to be nice because that’s intervening on their autonomy, we seethe. When kids run free while their parents sit in the van with the heat on and the music, and sometimes weed, we say, Hey god bless, but we feel uncomfortable, and we also feel uncomfortable for feeling uncomfortable.
When sirens go by, we stop to perform awe. When one child is wailing, we say, It’s fine, they’re fine, we’re fine.
At the playground, when the lonely older boy makes a kingdom in the dirt, we tell him it’s nice and he smiles shyly. When we ask if his kingdom has a name, he says it doesn’t, but he’s built a ditch that will be a moat when it rains and he’s from Florida and he misses it and he’s not scared of cold but he’d rather be warm. We say, What’s your name, but he mumbles it.
In a lull, we do pull-ups on the monkey bars and an ache spreads in a crescent around our shoulder blades. We say, Getting old, and we glance around. We remember triumphs and bruises. We talk about metal slides, how they burned, how kids today should be grateful for temperate, non-splintering plastic, but also how we pity them for what they’ve never experienced. We watch them pretend that the floor is lava, watch the fear on the little ones as they slip and the big ones jeer, You’re dead now, dead, you’re dead.
At the playground, the ice cream truck looks like it could be from any time from the last fifty years, like if you took a picture it would feel as though you were living inside something you missed. When the children flock to the truck parked on the street, we reach out our arms like we can hold them from far away, as pickups slam speed bumps without slowing.
When a hawk drinks from a puddle and the children move closer, we hold them back. When the toddlers keep tugging like the only thing that makes sense is to touch it, we’re a little proud but also disturbed at the lack of basic self-preservation instinct. We think, but don’t speak about, beak on flesh, talon in eyes. When we drag them home, they cry.
At the playground, “Baby Shark” emanates from an after-work khaki pocket. The kids with Arizona Ice Tea guzzle all twenty-four ounces, and the kids who will never have Arizona Ice Tea look jealous.
On a frozen evening, when a man sleeps with all his belongings under the slide, some kids laugh and some don’t notice. On a hot afternoon, when a man is doing donuts on a dirt bike next to the swings, someone says, Call the cops, and someone says, Don’t ever call the cops, and there’s a conversation to be had but we don’t have it.
At the playground, our children move toward one another and we ready ourselves for violence, and sometimes there is violence but sometimes there is tenderness. Hands in pockets, we smile, bashful and sad and silly and hopeful. We say, Maybe they could be friends.
On a morning when the sun is still low over the buildings, so early that no one else is out yet, we say, All ours now, baby, and always, in the quiet, in the boredom, there’s a stab of relief.
Rumpus original art by Dara Herman Zierlein